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Native Pathways to Education
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Indigenous Education Worldwide


Scanned-Digitized Version
Thomas (Tom) R. Hopkins

Original Citation
Meriam, Lewis. THE PROBLEM OF INDIAN ADMINISTRATION. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928, 872 pp.


Adult Education. No educational program is complete that does not include efforts to reach adults as well as children. This is especially true with Indians, where the rate of adult illiteracy is abnormally high; where economic salvation is largely dependent upon better agricultural methods; where health conditions are serious, and where a boarding school policy in education has tended to leave the adult members of the family isolated from necessary social change.

Elimination of Illiteracy. Elimination of illiteracy among adults, while a difficult task anywhere, is no more impossible with Indians than with other groups in the population. It can be accomplished by such methods as have been worked out in the mountains of Kentucky in the adult day schools of South Carolina, in evening schools in cities, in industrial corporations, in the army training camps during war time, and in prisons. The principles and technique are now available, and any determined effort by the government would have the assistance of organizations like the " National Illiteracy Crusade," which is especially interested in Indian illiteracy, and the various states where campaigns of illiteracy have been carried on in recent years. Experiments already undertaken on Blackfeet and at Cass Lake show what can be done with Indians. Some of the states would be especially glad to cooperate with the national government in this work, since in some instances Indians remain the one single group to be reached. North Dakota, for example, reduced its illiteracy rate to two-tenths of one per cent as the result of efforts put forth between 1924 and 1926, and many of the nearly three thousand illiterates not yet reached when this report was made are Indians. Only a small amount of money would be needed to wipe out a large part of the illiteracy among Indians, but the work would have to be directed from the Washington office by some one acquainted with modern methods in adult education.

Illiteracy is only one part of adult education, of course. Mere literacy is not education. Just as with the three R's in elementary education, ability to read and write among adults is only a tool, though a necessary tool. In the case of adult Indians, as some of the workers in Superintendent Campbell's "Five-Year Program" discovered, the most valuable result of eliminating illiteracy is the element of encouragement it provides. It removes one more barrier; it makes the adult Indian feel that he is accomplishing something; it helps overcome a sense of inferiority that can become fatal to all progress.

Other Forms of Adult Education. Some of the more important forms of adult education that need to be provided for Indians are those that affect directly home and community. The work of the field matron in the Indian Service was intended to furnish this, and has undoubtedly done so in a few rare instances. On the whole, however, the low training requirements, poor pay, and lack of intelligent direction have defeated the purpose of the position; too often the field matron has simply been " the wife of the farmer." A few field matrons have, however, shown what can be done by this type of work in improving health and home conditions. Community nurses, social workers accustomed to helping build up families economically and socially, visiting teachers from the schools who influence both home and school; these are indispensable types of adult education that have hardly begun to be provided for Indians. A whole series of problems which seemed to Congress and the states important enough to warrant federal legislation in the Shepherd-Towner Maternity Act for cooperation with the states suggest that something of the same sort should be done for Indians, who need it more than the general population. Here again the work for Indians done in the name of the national government is far behind the standards set up by Congress and operated through other federal agencies.

Community organization of social life for Indians, based upon the principle of participation by Indians themselves, is also a real need. The government has in effect destroyed Indian tribal and community life without substituting anything valuable for it. Tribal councils are seldom utilized by the superintendent of an Indian reservation, though they are one of the best natural training schools for citizenship. Indian play and games offer an opportunity for social life that is likely to be both objected to and exploited with almost no effort to find an in-between arrangement that will preserve what is worth while and yet interfere as little as necessary with work that must be done.. One of the most valuable efforts in this direction with Indians is the formation of the "farm chapters " and " women's auxiliaries " that are especially conspicuous in the " Five-Year Program," and while the motive for this is largely agricultural education, actually the results enter into every phase of home and family life.

The need for programs of community betterment is not confined to poor Indians on the farms; probably no situation anywhere is more tragic than the wasted lives of most Osage Indians, for whom the government has conserved material wealth but has done nothing else to help them help themselves, where deterioration has clearly set in and where the only hope is for a social and recreational program that may educate the Osages to want better and more important things, both for themselves and for less wealthy Indians elsewhere in the United States.

Community Participation. Indians do not as a rule have even the community participation involved in parent-teacher associations and school-board membership. Most superintendents of reservations and agency employees generally do not understand the fundamental educational principle that the Indian must learn to do things for himself, even if he makes mistakes in the effort. They do not seem to realize that almost no change can be permanent that is imposed from above, that no " progress," so called, will persist and continue if it is not directly the result of the wish and effort of the individual himself. Indians are not fundamentally different from other people in this. Some of the housing plans that look most promising are likely to have this fatal defect: Unless the Indian wants the house himself, and works for it, his occupancy will be short-lived, or he will manage to have poorer health and home conditions than he had in a less imposing looking dwelling that actually grew out of his own limited needs and the community life. Long experience with housing conditions in cities has demonstrated this principle beyond the shadow of a doubt; it needs very much to be recognized in the Indian Service. The problem is to restore and recreate community life through the Indians' own activities, helped and guided only as far as is absolutely necessary by others.

One superintendent who does understand the educational principle of self-activity as applied to adults as well as children put it to the Indians of his jurisdiction in the following blunt fashion last spring, after a particularly severe snow storm had done con- siderable damage:

I am more firmly convinced than ever that the solution of the Indian's problem and the welfare of himself and his family rest almost entirely with him. I want to put this fact before you as forcibly as possible; the Indian must accept his responsibility. He must meet the situation, must do the best he can with what he has. It is his only salvation. There is no other way out. Neither the efforts of the Indian office nor myself will avail, unless the Indian himself realizes the gravity of the situation and makes an effort.

That adults Indians will rise to appeals like this is evident from comments by Indians of the Blackfeet tribe on the " Five-Year Program "; " Bear Head spoke about not working but waiting," said one. " If we wait we get nowhere. Let us work and get some- where." Said another: "I tell my children to do all they can for the Five-Year Program. It is all we fall back on. I urged my people this year to work hard to get stock to build root cellars. I advised them not to depend upon their big claim alone, but to work and supply their own homes."

The principle of participation applies to all Indian activities. It applies to plans for community centers, which are far more a matter of individual and group activity under competent leadership than of buildings. It applies to schemes for giving returned students special opportunities on the reservations, which will profit by frank discussion in which all concerned can take part. And one of the chief values of the corporate plan for managing tribal affairs discussed elsewhere in this report is the training it would afford for undertaking responsibility in business and other matters.

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Last modified April 25, 2008